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March/April 2021

This Coming Budget Season is an Opportunity Unlike Any Other for School Boards 

By Sara R. Shaw and Carrie B. Stewart 

More than ever before, your board can — and should — ensure equity and resource alignment in your district, to support students. 

We are in a time of incredible uncertainty and exacerbated instructional inequities. As school board members, your governance is more important than ever — and yet there is so much you cannot control, especially public health. 

One thing your board can control, especially as you think about next year’s budget, is your planning process and use of data to support students. In particular, per-pupil spending data for every school in your district have been available on the Illinois Report Card since 2019 as part of the state’s implementation of the site-based expenditure reporting required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. These school-by-school spending data provide important insight for budgetary planning and decision-making. 

Now is the time to leverage school spending data strategically, as the 2021-22 school year budget process is underway. School boards taking this step will uphold their fiduciary responsibility to their communities and strengthen their districts’ systems for taking care of children at the exact moment when these systems are most needed. 

Why Use These Data? 
The variation of per-pupil spending across the schools in a district is a reflection of the board’s resource allocation decisions. Equitable resource allocation continues to be a top priority for the education field and public, as the Illinois State Board of Education affirmed during its recent stakeholder engagement process to inform its Strategic Plan, which features “resource allocation” as a key priority area. 

Typically, districts and school boards are accustomed to looking “vertically” at resource allocation, comparing how resources are spent on personnel and non-personnel items. Looking “horizontally” across the district instead, by examining per-pupil spending levels at each school allows the board to consider how its spending allocation to each school aligns to the district’s school performance goals, student demographics, and student needs and opportunities at each school. The board’s sense of what each school needs may be especially refined during the pandemic, as students and families experience disruptions in learning and life in different ways. 

Why Use School Per-Pupil Data Now? 
Your district’s school-by-school spending data are historical: They reflect last year and the prior year’s actual expenditures. These data are not solely for backward-looking reflection purposes, however. Right now, at the outset of planning for the next school year, every school board has the opportunity to use these data impactfully. By studying a district’s past spending during its budgeting process, a board can make intentional decisions on where its future resources will go and align them with the board’s goals and priorities. 

How Can These Data Be Used in Your Board’s Budget Process? 
First, each local school board can set the expectation with the district leadership team that board members would like to see any drafts of the district budget in a school-by-school per-pupil format

Second, both board members and district leadership can discuss the concept that equal funding is not equitable funding: Student needs and opportunities differ at each school, and funding allocations across schools should reflect these differences while also acknowledging district priorities and programs being offered. Consider what other data sources tell you about how students and families are experiencing the pandemic, and how school spending data can inform the board’s decisions about how to support them. 

The article “Coming Soon: Transparent School-by-School Spending,” by Marguerite Roza and Carrie Stewart, published in School Administrator magazine by The School Superintendents Association (AASA), encourages school districts to consider these five questions when reviewing their school spending reports: Do some schools stand out as getting less or more money than others? If so, why? 

Are district allocations for specific student groups boosting spending at high-need schools? If not, why not? 

Are salary patterns driving uneven spending in ways that concern the district or the community? 

Is centralized spending lean and of high value? What share of dollars are centrally managed? Are leaders prepared to help the public understand what chunk of those dollars go to central-office functions versus services to schools? 

What student outcomes is the district getting at each school in return for its share of public dollars? Are some schools able to leverage dollars to do more for students than others with the same share? 

These questions are appropriate to ask in any year, but especially in a year where needs are great, learning recovery is necessary, and inequities are exacerbated. 

The bottom line is that every school board will have many considerations in the upcoming budget process, from critical investments in targeted learning recovery efforts, to personal pro-tective equipment and technology requests, to longer-term strategies addressing pre-COVID-19 inequities. Facing these challenges, your board can use the data already available to you, such as school per-pupil spending amounts, to ensure that next year’s budget allocates resources in ways that address inequities, reflect the board’s best sense of where the dollars must go to support students, and align with the district’s priorities. 

Sara R. Shaw is Senior Manager, Fiscal and Academic Solvency at the Illinois State Board of Education. Carrie B. Stewart is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Afton Partners. Resources associated with this article can be found on the Journal’s resources page, bit.ly/MA21Jres